Between Green and Blue: A Conversation with Abdallah Zrika

Tomorrow, we’ll officially launch the new ArabLit Quarterly: Summer 2019, The Sea. Today, a piece from the Winter/Spring issue

Ali Abdeddine and Shireen Hamza in conversation with Abdallah Zrika

Translated by Shireen Hamza

It was the last week of Ramadan, 2018. Ali and I were browsing at a book fair in Rabat, close to the central train station. He had recently moved there from Meknes; it was my first return to Morocco since I’d spent the summer in Meknes in 2015. I asked him to recommend a few books by contemporary Moroccan writers. We came upon a copy of Abdallah Zrika’s Laughter of the Tree of Speech,and I was thrilled to see that its poems had been composed in Meknes. Flipping through the book, my joy turned to wonder, and my wonder mingled with sorrow. I read:

Always, I open my heart

I speak, first, from my fingernails, taken from the ocean’s sand, then from the algae of my hair in indigent atmospheres, then from my eyes, from the aluminum of the sky

And I invite you all now

And my hand is firewood

I was born in an age of revolution

poor, poor, poor

up to the ankles of my feet

I was born barefoot

and sick

and hungry

and angry

until the ocean’s foam was in my mouth

and in my mouth was iron and rock

and words in mourning

and hungry children

and small dogs killed by the cold and rain

and fear

and people with torn clothes, bare feet

and in my hand, teeth of crystal

and anger

and the crying of children

and the ill

and blame

and here I am, angry


I blame the murdered

and I open my heart

I blame those who deserve blame

For the wound in us is deep

the betrayal deep

the murdered among us are hurting.

(from “I Now Write Poetry in my Body,” pages 15-17).

Born in 1953 in Casablanca, Zrika’s first works were published in various Arabic newspapers and magazines in Morocco when he was just 20. He was imprisoned for two years starting in 1978, the “Years of Lead,” because some of his poems were deemed dangerous. He holds a degree in sociology from the College of Liberal Arts in Rabat, and now lives in Casablanca. He has published much: at least eight books of poetry in Arabic, two novels, and several plays and short stories in literary magazines. Many of his poems have been translated into French. He himself has collaborated on translations of his own work into French; Abdellatif La’abi has published two French collections of his translations. More recently, he has composed essays in French. Zrika connected some of his earlier books to specific cities of Morocco by naming their place and time of composition. Laughter of the Tree of Speech are “poems of Meknes,” written between October 1978 and March 1980; Stone Flowers are “poems of Casablanca,” written between March and June of 1980. But he did not continue this practice.

What I find bewitching about most of Zrika’s writings is that place and time confound the reader. His style is sometimes deliberately archaic or classical, as in his novel The Woman with Two Horses. Early in the novel, Zrika describes a protagonist who leaves home to join some workers digging a well. His description of their endless digging, their sense that their task is never-ending, and their intense hope of water all feels rooted in a mythical time outside of time. And yet, their circumstances, habits of consumption, and vulnerability are all familiar. The wonder I feel in his work is in the balance he strikes between timelessness and fierce historical specificity, which he has negotiated differently in different works.

I thank Ali for pulling Zrika’s book of Meknesi poems out of a pile at the book fair. And because of the kindness of Tim DeMay, who has translated a selection of Zrika’s work in this issue, we were able to interview Zrika over email about his work. Arabic was the language shared between the three of us; I present the interview here in translation, introduced by Ali Abdeddine:

Abdallah Zrika has a unique poetic voice, a dual linguistic formation. He writes his personal world, his unique self, wrapped in the cloak of solitude, and then expands the reach of his text to speak of everything, searching for the well of his poetry, which protects him from the screams of the world:

“Where is the well, that I may throw in my head and retain the rest of my body in another well, full of the cries of my void?”

The poet’s musical replies in this interview intervene in his texts, as if his text is his answer to this world. For Abdallah Zrika, writing is a translation of an “inner language,” a protection of the tree of language in the poet’s consciousness. That is Abdallah Zrika, whose tree of poetry is unique in its reach. His poetic voice is special in the way it crosses the lines, bends, and divisions of this world, sensing poetic heights.

Zrika’s worlds are full of astonishment; places where words come together in bewildering and unexpected ways. They expose the text—across time, place, and standpoint—a text full of voices that emerge from the depths of memory, from unknown geographies. The words themselves are things within the poet’s grasp, within his imagination. His text draws from solitude, premonition, worry, from “the multitude of people on the stairs of fear,” “the sick people trembling behind the roses,” and from terrifying, strange, and intimate places, from nightmares, worlds of light, cities, the shadows of prisons, the graveyards of language, courtyards out of sight of life, the closet of solitude, the staircase of fear. It is as if the poet is place itself, and, as he says in the interview, “as if the place in which I write is the one writing.”

In this way, the poem frees the self from the world’s contradictions. “Only ladders rescue me from the terror of the earth.” Rather he allows them, in the shade of poetry, by reflecting on their contradictions and continual ruin. For through the medium of poetry, you gain the self and recover its flame, its glow. You sing with existence and join with things, with the universe, and recover the self from its expected attachment to objects, details, the everyday. As long as language keeps transforming among poets, from thread to needle, they may clothe the nakedness of the world, just as language recovers the freshness of life and lifts the dust of tedium. “I feel I am a prisoner in this body forever. But how necessary the dark, so I can leave for the patio’s light. Yes, the chair does not interest me unless it is empty of me.”

Poetry is close to existence, to life. It speaks, goes silent, leaves to return to that Platonic exile because it is the enemy of the world’s alienation and decay, and it approaches the worry that preys upon meaning and dreams. “For if I die, who will write the poems that warm the holes in the walls so the insects do not die.” For the world is cold, chilly. “Cold does not help with writing.” And poetry alone can blow life into stiff bones and joints. “Until I recover and open the world like a refrigerator to find nothing but the odor of the white rotted by the ice.”

In short, Abdallah Zrika’s poetry is the tree that infiltrates the strange rock within people to spread greenery and banish forgetfulness, the needle that mends the tears in language to build a world full of wonder.

How did you begin writing and translating? And why poetry? How did Abdallah Zrika find his “workshop”?

Abdallah Zrika: I startedat the age of twelve. I still see it in blue, the color of the plastic cover of the notebook in which I wrote for the first time. In the sky, there always seems to be a fig tree, close to my grandmother’s house. I used to write about it. There are two colors to this beginning: blue and the cold green of the fig tree.

My first translation into French was published in 1982 in Paris, by the poet Abd al-Latif al-La’abi. Among my translated works is “Black Candles,” published in Paris in 1998, followed by others by poets like Bernard Noelle, Jean-Charles DePaule…

I consider translation a question of vitality. A text moves from language to language and its readers become varied thereby. But then, I consider the work of writing itself another translation, from the “internal language” of the writer to the language through which the text manifests. Translation is not the interior/soul of the text. The text transforms upon being read, first, and that too is the reader’s “translation.” Each reader has his own personal translation. And the writer himself, when he returns to “read” his text, “translates” it within him, meaning he sees it in a new form each time.

I have translated my own texts into French, especially prose. It helps me “see” my words differently, as if looking at them from a new angle. I am obsessed with my words, to some extent, which I consider have a personal history with me. In the end, I only choose a word that has something of a personal connection with me, and I distance myself from the word I feel is distant from me. This has made me attempt to create the same experience in translation as well; I attempt to use a French word that has a connection and closeness to me.

Why poetry? This is the same question as “Why life?” Poetry is something material for me. I consider words themselves to be material. I consider them to be like things, and for this reason poetry is oriented directly toward that which is foundational and directly affects the reader. It is incisive writing, rather like the splitting of a boulder. It is not easy, as it might seem at first, because it is work on that which is foundational, on original matter.

Are there moods for writing and for translation? What are they?

AZ: Moods? All I know is that I write in any place, in the house for example. I do not need a fixed place or time. What is important is the time when I set the “text” in front of me, like a canvas, and look at it from each side. I work on it endlessly, or until such time as I make the difficult decision to publish it. Otherwise, it would stay in front of me: more material to work on.

In your texts, the reader finds a collision of reality and the metaphysical, of melancholy and exuberance. Does this have something to do with the conditions in which you write?

AZ: For me, there is no collision between reality and the metaphysical. I believe that behind each reality – or in reality itself – is a metaphysical distance. We can come close to the same thing time and again, but never reach it. We will never be finished with the same thing.

There is no binary here between melancholy and exuberance. All of these things are enmeshed. It is possible for you to celebrate and feel some bitterness, in the end. And then, in writing even the most difficult things, you feel the pleasure of writing.

In your opinion, where does beauty come into the text, especially when this text is interlaced with terrifying places, nightmares, and the shadows of prisons — as is the case with yours?

AZ: In writing, there is no “ugly” and “beautiful.” There is some other thing beyond this. Rather, it is possible that what we usually see as beautiful becomes something ugly. In the same way, “terrifying” things become close to us, more beautiful even than the things with which we seek closeness and return to often.

Your texts create for us many different geographies, in eras opaque and enigmatic. What does the word “geography” mean, as you use it? Do you seek out poets of any specific geographies?

And what is your experience with the legacies of colonialism, as they relate to language and publishing? And are you interested in or do you have experience with the literatures of other languages, besides Arabic and French?

AZ: Place strays with you to another place. I write in one place of another. I feel it is as if the place in which I write is the one writing. It is as if I am place itself. I think that the place you write about weaves a close relationship with you and becomes the issue besieging you in your writing. Even when you write about a place to which you are accustomed, it becomes other, like another space, a strange space.

I believe that my participation in the translation of some of my texts has made the process of translation easier for the translator. I also feel that it has broadened the horizons of my writing in Arabic. Translation has helped me “size up” my words, and I’ve learned more about words by learning them across languages.

It just so happens that I wrote some prose texts in French, at the request of a publisher. The issue is similar to my writing of prose texts in Arabic; it helped me “exit” the domain of poetry for a time so that I could return to it, finally, as someone new. Then, in light of my twofold formation, I feel closeness to nearly each French word that I write, or rather, that most of the words I use have a “personal history” with me. Thus I become interested in learning other languages. These days, I do not try to read a poem translated from English, for example, without looking up the original text, even if I find it difficult. I believe that language is the other that wishes to see itself in the mirror of another language.

“The text transforms upon being read.” Is it not possible to say that presenting a text gives it additional distance? Or that, once published, the text is in the possession of the reader, who can do with it what she pleases, and there is no longer a connection between it and the poet?

AZ: The text, through the process of writing, changes, transforms, dies and lives in the same moment. After publication, the “writing” of readers changes and transforms it. And the poet who presents his texts becomes another person, different from the writer who sat in some corner. Instead, he becomes an actor, a changed person, and the text remains an open workshop.

It appears that poetry is related, in the poet’s memory, with the green of the olive tree, and that he seeks to recover the song of that childhood existence. How do you feel today about all you have published? Do you view it from a distance, or return to look at it?

AZ: I continue to view poetry as the same cold green of the fig tree, and I feel as if I continue to write in the same notebook with the blue plastic cover. I remain between these two colors.

The difficulty or impossibility of staying in a place is sometimes what calls the poet to staying in language. Is this what calls you to seek intimacy with words? Or do you view this familiarity as the aesthetic requirement for writing a poem?

AZ: I cannot differentiate between staying in Place or staying in Language. I feel that my words — as I said before — are material, like things. Sometimes I look at them as if at a bunch of low-rise homes, or a bunch of nails, or new green shrubs, or the quicklime of a naked, peeling wall…

Is your poetry, or poetry in general, a parallel life? Or a secondary life? And how is this life bound by language?

AZ: Poetry, for me, seeks that which is foundational, a negation of the difference between the word and the thing. This state of “negation” is in and of itself the state of writing. I do not consider poetry to be a parallel life — it is a vital and foundational matter for me.

You mentioned that you write a text twice: the first writing is free and the second is humbled by composition and other standards created by the poet’s vision. This might mean there are many transformative twists and turns in the text’s path.

AZ: I don’t believe there is a “free writing” and a “secondary writing.” There is just one continuous act of writing, “incisive” and pleasurable work, which extends until it is submitted for publication.

Ali Abdeddine is a writer and an advanced PhD student in literature at Aïn Chock Faculté, Casablanca, working with Dr. Karim Allah Kabor. His work focuses on issues of cultural preservation, power and aesthetics in the Tachelhit poetry of Muhammad Mustawi. He lives in Rabat, where he also teaches Arabic.

Shireen Hamza is a PhD candidate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, working on the history of medicine in the medieval Indian Ocean World. She produces interviews for The Ottoman History Podcast and Ventricles Podcast, and has recently started dabbling in composing sound pieces with field recordings.

Abdallah Zrika is a Moroccan poet who was imprisoned for “attacks on sacred values,” after the success of his first collection of poetry in 1977, رقصة الرأس والوردة, or Dance of the Head and the Rose. French poet Alain Jouffroy said that Zrika’s work is “a kind of beyond-the-earth, an opening of being to the indefinable real.” The majority of Zrika’s poetry has been translated into French by Abdellatif Laâbi, Bernard Noël, and himself, such as Bougies noires, Insecte de l’infini, and Echelles de la métaphysique. Translations in English have appeared in Banipal and are forthcoming in Asymptote.